Beware the Wolf in Sheep’s Clothing: On Empowering Language and New Year Marketing

New Year Graphic.pngIf you listen to as many podcasts as I do, you’ve no doubt heard ads for the new Huawei Fit. The copy goes something like this:

“The fitness tracker for every BODY. You don’t have to be a super fit athlete, the Huawei fitness tracker is designed to meet you where you’re at.” Continue reading “Beware the Wolf in Sheep’s Clothing: On Empowering Language and New Year Marketing”

Let’s Talk About Hunger

I was at the gym today and saw an ad on one of the many televisions for SlimFast. Its selling point, other than a bunch of thin white women smiling, was that it “controls hunger for up to 4 hours.”

It controls hunger.

Let’s think about that. It doesn’t satisfy hunger, it controls it.

We (especially us women but not only) are taught to have an adversarial relationship with hunger. To see it as a problem, an enemy, a danger that must be controlled.  Continue reading “Let’s Talk About Hunger”

Embodiment: War, Détente, Peace

This piece is about a year old (I write a lot that I sit on or discard or can’t figure out what to make of) but it feels as relevant as ever. And, interestingly, the idea of “body détente” came up in a recent journaling exercise I did, so I guess it is, as ever, an ongoing process.

—–

I want more than a détente with my body, I want peace.

I often go back and forth on the idea of body love. On the one hand, it feels vital, life-saving, and profoundly radical. It is a political stance and action (praxis, if you will) that has the power to counter and subvert centuries-old systems of power. On the other…I’m just fucking tired of thinking about my body. And how it succeeds and fails to fit into someone else’s ideals. And actively practicing body love (or acceptance) takes a lot of energy. Continue reading “Embodiment: War, Détente, Peace”

Learning Crow/Unlearning Culturally Imposed Limitations

Picture borrowed from here.

As I’ve talked about before, I spent much of my life unembodied, learning to distrust both my instincts and my abilities–an experience I think is very common especially (but not only) for women. Growing up both fat and female I internalized a lot of so-called truths about my body that I failed to question (hell, I didn’t know I could question them) and instead integrated them as my own truths. Truths such as women’s innate weakness*, body size as a stand-in for fitness** and worth*** and the idea that I was barred from certain joyful pursuits unless and until I achieved some mythical size that my has no hope of achieving.

Over the past year or so I have decided to test those culturally- (and self-) imposed limitations to see how many of them are actually real. Despite spending some time lifting and getting used to the idea of moving heavy things with merely my body, I still hung on to some ideas I just couldn’t shake. The idea that I’ll never do a full pushup, the idea that I am too weak and too heavy to do a handstand. This was grounded in two fundamental truths: women are inherently weaker when it comes to upper body strength and that I weigh too much to be able to hold my weight with just my arms.

Turns out these two fundamental truths are a load of limiting tripe. While it may be true that most women are inherently weaker than most men, who cares? (And, for a quick digression, how are we measuring this? One rep max? One rep max lifted after an equal number of years spent lifting, being taught good form and not having to fight years of socialization to pick up weights heavier than five pounds? Percentage of bodyweight lifted?**** Something, anything, that begins to attend to the profound cultural disadvantage women, as a group, have in building strength?) What matters is how strong my arms are and how much I trust them. Period. It doesn’t matter how strong they are compared to the dude in the squat rack curling away (seriously, stop that). Or how strong they are compared to the guy who’s never spent a day in the gym but hauls hay every day. Or even how strong they are compared to my yoga teacher with cut biceps and a six pack. What matters is how strong they are, how far I push them, and how I trust them.

Which brings me to my second limiting truth. I had this capital-t Truth that I was too weak and too heavy to do these amazing things I wanted to do: crow pose, handstands. But here’s the thing, forty pounds ago, when I was at a weight I feel more comfortable at, I was also too weak and too heavy to try. And probably, had I weighed forty pounds less (which some people do but my body sure as hell isn’t meant to) I would have still been too weak and too heavy to try. Not even to do, just to try. Because I bought into these myths wholeheartedly. Women are weak (why do we hear “most women are inherently weaker in upper body strength compared to most men” and rewrite it to “women are weak?”) and only teeny tiny women get to do the fun stuff.

So I just never tried. But in the past few months I’ve decided fuck that noise. I may be at a disadvantage compared to some people smaller and stronger than me. I may never achieve exactly what I want to do, but I sure won’t if I don’t try.

And so I’ve tried. And tried. And today I held crow for longer than I’ve ever held it (a record-breaking six seconds which, let me tell you, is a LONG time when you’re holding your entire weight on your hands). And yesterday I held a handstand for 7 seconds. A HANDSTAND. Something I thought was relegated to memories of childhood.

I am still heavier and larger than everyone you see in yoga magazines. I am still fighting the limitations that make these poses hard, but it turns out 95% of those limitations are mental. And if I trust my body to hold me and keep doing it a little more each day, I can do some amazing things. (I can also, as I learned going for 10 seconds in crow, land right on my face. Turns out learning how to get up after falling is a big part of learning how to do.)

*Bollocks

**Fucking bollocks

***Toxic fucking bollocks

****When measured this way women are actually a hell of a lot stronger than we’ve been taught to believe ourselves.

Food Rules: The good, the bad, and the ugly

To Thine Own Self Be TrueFood rules are a pretty contentious topic–some people live and die by them. Some feel that healthy eating habits (especially for those in recovery from disordered eating) can’t include them. Some like to reframe rules as “guidelines” and some seem try to delude both themselves and their audiences that their food rules are different and, no matter how restrictive they seem, they aren’t like that other person’s restrictive food rules.

If you’re on Facebook (or the internet) you’ve encountered a plethora of food rules: Whole30, Paleo, plant-based, vegan, raw vegan, “clean” eating, Weight Watchers, intermittent fasting, etc. etc.

I’ve tried more than my fair share of rules: raw vegan (cold all the time but felt great–possibly because the body’s response to starvation is a push of energy); Eat to Live (that way madness and–with 3 pounds of produce and a cup of beans a day–pooping lie); extreme calorie restriction; Geneen Roth’s (generally sane) guidelines; obsessive calorie tracking; and the one freeing but problematic rule: fuck it all. I’ve tried intuitive eating (and had a fair bit of success). I’ve done low(ish) carb (as an ethical vegan there is only so low one’s carbs can go). I’ve done low GI. I’ve paired both extreme calorie restriction and a more moderate intake with obsessive exercise. I’ve toyed with orthorexia.

What I’m saying is, I’ve tried a lot of rules. They’ve all, with the exception of intuitive eating, been a substitute for the control I was lacking in life, and a tool with which to punish myself.

I, like many of us, was never taught or modelled healthy eating/food patterns. So, when I’ve thrown off the shackles of culturally supported food bullshit, whether out of burgeoning self-love or politics (and, let me be clear, my self-love is intimately tied to–and a result of–my feminist politics) I have found myself floundering. What does a healthy relationship with food actually look like? What is normal eating?

This is a remarkably stressful question. Because, really, in this culture at least, there doesn’t seem to be a clear answer. If I were to try to answer that question it would look something like this: a pattern of eating that keeps you nourished without angst or worry.

But what does that look like in practice?

I’ve been working through Making Peace with Food by Susan Kano. It has been revealing and hope-inducing. From it, I have incorporated three rules into my life. Rules that feel sustainable. Rules that give me a framework within which I can eat with freedom and care for myself, by nourishing both my body and my soul. The rules I’ve incorporated are:

1. When you are craving something, eat it. Indulge that craving. Enjoy it whole-heartedly.
2. When you’re not craving something particular, eat health-promoting food (fruits and veg, whole grains, protein, etc.).
3. When you start feeling stressed or compulsive about food flip the script from “Can I resist to this?” to “Do I want this?” If the answer is yes go to number 1. If not, go do something else.

In order to embrace these rules I have had to (start to) accept that weight-loss might not be in the cards. That my choice might be sanity at this size or angst at, well, this size. And that I can focus on a healthy and nourishing relationship with food and I can focus on getting really strong, fit, and capable, and that the mental/emotional work is to accept that my body will do what it does within those habits.

And that sounds like a pretty damn good place to be.

What if you trusted your body completely?

I’ve played with Intuitive Eating in the past, finding some success (success being defined as sanity around food and body and a weight that felt generally good for my body, regardless of how it hewed to cultural ideals) for periods of time. And I’ve gone down similar roads, from Geneen Roth’s Women Food and God to Normal Eating for Normal Weight to Isabel Foxen Duke and everything in between.

I like the idea of intuitive eating. It makes sense to me. Ish.

Except that I naturally chafe at the strictures of eating rules. Even the gentle “guidelines” that Intuitive Eating and Geneen Roth suggest. And, as guidelines go, they’re pretty good. But they are guidelines that, for those of us with a bent for dieting/restriction, easily go from “honour your hunger” to “eat as little as you can get away with.” What that looks like is checking in mid-meal to ask “can I stop now? Is this the absolute minimum amount of food I can eat?”

Which is another way of saying, I can use those guidelines to go into diet/restriction mentality. Which is a place of profound distrust of my body. And so even though the party line is “trusting my intuition” the reality is rules-lawyering to use a body-positive approach to restrict. Which leads to reactive eating (which makes me feel crazy, even if I know it’s a physiological phenomenon).

And so I’ve been wondering…what if I decided to radically trust my body?

Which means not just saying I trust it and half-assing it, but really, profoundly trusting my body to tell me when it needs to eat and when it’s had enough. And not second-guessing it.

I took inventory of the ways that I trust my body and it was pretty sad. I trust my body to tell me when I’m too cold or too hot, when I’m thirsty, and when I need to go to the bathroom. But that’s about it. I don’t trust it, not really, to tell me how much and how often to eat, I don’t trust it to tell me when I’m tired–when I need sleep or rest.

And so I wondered–what’s the difference? I would never notice thirst and go “Well, you can’t be thirsty now! You just had water two hours ago!” That is absurd. I would never notice I was chilled and think “No, I’m not going to get that blanket, this sweater should be enough.”

And yet those are the messages I send myself with food. “Is this the least possible amount I can eat? Can I stop now?” And those are the messages I send myself with tiredness, “Yeah, I’m tired, but reading Jezebel for another hour seems like a much better choice than going to bed early.”

And so I wonder, what if I decided to radically trust my body? What if I change the question from “Can I stop now?” to “Do I need more? How much do I need to feel nourished?”

I don’t know what the answer will be. But I realize that I can’t trust my body until my body trusts me. And that won’t happen until I act like the trustworthy caretaker it deserves.

Why I Don’t Leave It On The Field

There are two interesting and contradictory trends in fitness I keep seeing. The first is the “leave it on the field” (or workout ’til you vomit) trend and the latter is, seemingly, a backlash, mostly found in more feminist (whether explicitly or not), body-positive spaces that argues training and movement should be additive–they should positively benefit you and support your other activities rather than eclipsing them.

This post was inspired by (among other things) this post about a Spartan race in California that resulted in a dozen people being sent to the hospital, including broken bones and two heart attacks. It’s also inspired by the ongoing conversations about the sustainability of Crossfit as well as the influx of Tough Mudder, Spartan Run, and Mud Run pictures crowding my Facebook timeline. And it’s inspired by my own past all-or-nothing tendencies that saw me doing two hours of cardio a day, running myself ragged in pursuit of…something.

So I want to think about what that something is and why so many of us fall prey to the pursuit of it at the expense of our health, wallets, and time. And I want to think about how it’s probably related to the neoliberal conception of health and fitness. I’m going to be totally gauche and quote myself here:

Both Schee (2008) and Guthman and DuPuis (2006) borrow Foucault’s concept of governmentality to describe the ways that dominant forces shape a self-governing ethic that creates a “hypervigilance about control and deservingness” which then “creates divisions between active citizens, those who can manage their own risks, and ‘targeted populations’, those who require intervention in management of risks” (Guthman & DuPuis, 2006, p. 443). Colls and Evans (2009) argue that even those who are at a ‘normal’ weight are considered at “risk of becoming ‘overweight’ which in turn is a risk for becoming ‘obese’” (p.1013), thus all bodies are subject to that hypervigilance and surveillance. Those currently construed as active citizens are viewed as self-disciplined and rational, while those who fail to achieve the twin duties of eating and thinness are viewed as irrational and lacking discipline (Guthman & DuPuis, 2006). It is in this way that class (and its corollaries race and gender) is performed through the body (Guthman & DuPuis, 2006).

Because I think this idea may be at the root of the popularity of balls-to-the-wall fitness trends.

It is not enough, in our culture, to strive for moderation, something that is hard enough to attain in our current obesogenic environment (a not unproblematic term, certainly, but I haven’t found a better one that attends to the constant availability of hyperpalatable foods, the billions of dollars that go into advertising and lobbying, the agricultural conglomerates that receive subsidies for calorically dense crops while fresh fruits and vegetables are out of reach for many, and the car culture and other forces that encourage sedentary lifestyles). Rather, we divide ourselves between those seeking ritual self-flagellation, couch potatoes, and the growing number just trying to find sanity and health in their food and movement practices.

One thing that strikes me about Crossfit and its ilk is that it may stand in for church in our increasingly secular culture. It is somewhere you go regularly, where you have community, and where you are promised some form of purity–whether that’s in the form of punishment for your sins (try doing a WOD hungover, I promise you’ll feel punished) or in doing something few others can (or want to) do. Of course there are those who just enjoy a CF workout and like hanging out with their friends while they sweat their buns off. And that’s fine. Do what makes you happy and healthy. But let’s not ignore the larger cultural forces at play to avoid stepping on toes.

From Crossfit to SoulCycle, the last few years have seen a rise in exercise-with-the-fervour-of-religion. Which, I think, dovetails nicely with the idea that the good citizen keeps themself under constant surveillance, making sure to both consume and sacrifice at the same time. Crossfit, SoulCycle, and obstacle races like Tough Mudder are populated by primarily middle (to upper) class white 20-40 year olds who are willing to spend boatloads of cash on fitness. They are able to consume (spending money on classes, races, gear, and swag) while remaining slim and self-disciplined. The neoliberal problem of inelastic demand (we can only eat so much, own so many houses, drive so many cars) paired with the failing health of a population that is overworked, overfed, over-stressed, and lacking the basic right to affordable health care (still an issue in the US despite the Affordable Care Act) is fixed by a culture that “returns improvement to the individual” (Guthman & DuPuis, 2006, p. 443).

Rather than looking at systemic issues like how to ensure quality nutrition for all, a healthy work-life balance, adequate and safe housing, safe outdoor spaces, and the systemic barriers facing marginalized people, these exercise cultures focus on the individual and the path to purity through pushing beyond your limits.

And these exercise cultures burn people out because bodies aren’t meant to go 100% 5 (or 6 or 7!) days a week. We aren’t meant to tax our immune systems and nervous systems every day at the gym, pushing harder, harder, harder, until we puke or faint or rupture something. And while some people can keep that intensity up for a surprisingly long time, eventually the body gives. And, in the meantime, we are sacrificing so much for this ritual purity. How many times have you given a workout your all and then found yourself lying on the couch the rest of the day because you were spent? How many times have you pushed too hard, too fast, too far, then limped for four days, cursing every time you sit down on the toilet because your legs are on fire?

That is not sustainable, it is not loving. It is self-flagellation. It is seeking punishment for sins defined by a dysfunctional culture.

Which isn’t to say never go hard. I fully believe a sustainable movement practice can (and, ideally, should!) incorporate hard days. I’ve been incorporating clean-and-presses into my practice lately and you have got to be all in to do them. Every part of your body focused, engaged, working hard. But that can’t be every day. Not just because your body can’t sustain it (ever tried running the day after a heavy deadlift? It’s hell on earth) but your mind and soul can’t either. It wears you down. It strips the joy from movement and thus life.

Movement should be additive. It should enable you to conquer the massive floating log at Wreck Beach with ease (SO MUCH FUN) and then walk up the one million stairs to get back to the road. It should enable you to help your friend move with ease (seriously, moving is so much easier when you deadlift!), it should shore up your resources for times of high stress. In short, it should let you do the hard work of living–it shouldn’t be  the hard work.